DHAKA - In Bangladesh, the largest cause of death of children above age one is not malnutrition or disease -- it’s drowning. To combat this threat, a local non-profit organization is teaching thousands of children to swim.
It’s a hot afternoon and a group of 12-year-olds in a park are learning to swim as the call to prayer floats over the city.
An above-ground, inflatable swimming pool in a park is an unusual sight in Dhaka, but each week, dozens of children take swimming lessons here.
A swim teacher is chest-deep in the pool with kids in T-shirts and blue swim caps.
The lessons are offered through the non-profit Center for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh [CIPRB].
From 2006 to 2013, local swim instructors have taught about 360,000 children to swim, mostly in villages where the majority of people in live.
It’s a life-saving mission. An estimated 18,000 children drown each year in Bangladesh, making drowning the largest killer of children between the ages of one and 18.
Dr. Aminur Rahman, director of the International Drowning Research Center in Dhaka, recalls one tragedy in a village when a boy tried rescuing his five-year-old brother in a pond.
“The villagers tried to search [for] the child. Unfortunately, both of them were dead," said Rahman. "It was assumed they went to the pond for washing and maybe the younger one may have fallen down in the pond. It is a pity that both children drowned.”
Bangladesh sits on one of the world’s largest river deltas, above the Bay of Bengal. It is a country of rivers and ponds. Rahman said people often do not think of water as a threat because it is literally in their backyards.
“Someone says, we used to swim here, we go for bathing, washing, nothing happened. And sometimes they say it is god’s will. This kind of misperception actually exists in the community,” said Rahman.
Most drowning deaths happen when unsupervised children fall into ponds near their homes. Seventy-five percent of drownings happen within 20 meters of home.
In recent decades, Bangladesh has improved child health so that deaths from diarrhea and pneumonia, which are the two largest killers of children in many developing countries, have dramatically declined. However, over the same period there was no reduction in drowning deaths.
Most victims are from poor, uneducated families in rural areas. Rural children toddle about on their own around fields, roads and ponds.
For children above five years old, learning to swim is one way to prevent drowning. The center has trained 2,700 local swimming instructors according to international guidelines.
It seems to be making a difference. In three years of the program, drownings among children between five and nine dropped 48 percent, according to a paper in the U.S. journal Pediatrics.
At a school in another crowded neighborhood in Dhaka, 12-year-old Halima Sadia Tina recalled her swim lessons.
She said, “Now I can swim. When I went to my village house, I swim in that area and now I can swim better. The children who lived in rural areas they don’t know what is kick, float, glide and other systemic way of swimming.”
Rezul Islam, 13, said learning to kick was the most difficult part.
"The first time I was scared, but after some time I became normal with the water. Now I can save myself from drowning and also I can save other children’s life,” said Islam.
With each child who grows confident in the water, Bangladesh makes progress against a preventable public health threat.